Rating: ★★★★☆

Now that’s what I’m talking about – few things are better in art than having your expectations overturned and “The Pool Party” pleasantly surprised me with the efficacy of its execution. Not only did I laugh out loud on several occasions but I actually found myself seeing these characters in new yet consistent ways that were at once familiar and revelatory, an infinitely refreshing experience for the series. On top of that, this episode wasn’t merely a string of humorous moments loosely linked together around a group of people whose affiliation among one another felt taken for granted like so much of the eighth season, but instead was a seamless collection of very funny jokes relevant to the situations and ongoing characterizations of each individual contained within a few interweaving parallel plots which climaxed in meaningful conclusions.

For example, the episode’s cold open was a very clever comment on the now classic Jim pranks Dwight dynamic with an excellent twist. At this point in the series the prank schtick needs to be exceptionally hilarious to not be trite or played out. Jim acknowledging that half the fun of pranking Dwight was having Pam as his audience granted a new layer to what followed. Now finding himself performing for Stanley, possibly the last staff member expected to be a “fan of comedy”, the audience sees Jim going through a series of trial and error pranks including an adorable puppy in a Dwight outfit and what appeared to be a board game of some sort replacing Dwight’s desk top before finding what tickles Stanley’s funny bone – an assortment of meatballs littered throughout Dwight’s desk. Despite Dwight and Jim agreeing this isn’t very clever, Stanley can hardly contain his laughter and quips like, “Are you ready for some meat-ball?!” Turns out the joke’s on Jim as Dwight and Stanley have covertly gone into cahoots with each other to fool Jim into keeping the secret duo in great supply of delicious meatballs. Not only is Stanley’s apparent fascination with the comedic nature of spherical ground beef funny, but the revelation he’s working with Dwight is the icing on the cake.

Plus, Jim’s recognition of Pam’s absence in the open foreshadowed her temporary replacement’s subtle affinity for Jim which revealed itself when Kathy affectionately greeted Jim’s late arrival to Robert’s as well as her visible disappointment that Jim was not joining in the chicken fights which was accented aptly by her horror at Kevin’s eagerness to fill in. Naturally Jim didn’t even respond to either of these displays as he was too busy trying his best to tear himself away from the party in addition to being clearly devoted to his wife and kids. No one who’s familiar with The Office should expect any clichéd love triangle drama here which is exactly why I’m interested in where the writers intend to take this story.

And it doesn’t stop there. “The Pool Party” rode a momentum so powerful I’m having difficulty just reflecting on it and wondering how to include all the details that made this the best episode of the season so far. Let’s focus on what was the primary plot of the Erin and Andy saga. I was convinced I could not be persuaded to become reinvested in this romance but this episode proved me wrong. Ellie Kemper and Ed Helms’ respective quirkiness were perfectly balanced with absurdity and heart. From Erin’s description of her new part-time job waitressing at an Italian restaurant as her “Italian class” to her admirable effort to elicit jealousy from Andy by flirting hard with Dwight whom was more than willing to oblige in a manner which was entirely considerate and in no way sleazy (which was 100% true to Dwight’s usual tenderness disguised ironically by genuinely callous acts such as kicking Erin into the pool fully clothed and his affirmation that Andy is an “idiot” for not pursuing his feelings for Erin) to her sincere regret at the possibility that Andy’s “special night” was ruined exemplified the sweetness that has made her such a fan favorite. Andy’s honest frustration at “not knowing what [he’s] doing” was equally as endearing and that scene was absolutely the emotional clincher that too many episodes have lacked this season. Other highlights from this plot were the potato chip face smearing, Dwight’s overly vocal assertion that he could “bang [Erin] right now”, and Erin’s conclusion that although Andy “isn’t completely over his current girlfriend” she “can live with confused – [she understands] confused”.

Not nearly as nuanced or developed as the Andy and Erin romance but almost as adorable was Daryl and Val’s ongoing courtship which in this episode manifested in Daryl conquering his shyness over his body image in the eyes of his crush which was eventually overcome with a triumphant cannon ball received warmly by Val. Though it was straightforward this subplot was still cute because it was honest and relatable not to mention smoothly integrated into what could easily have been an overcrowded episode.

Perhaps the real show stealer though was the subplot that was the foundation of “The Pool Party” (yes Kevin, that was you) in which Robert California mourned the loss of his party mansion. The constant comparisons Robert made between what were his aspirations for his magnificent home and the reality his soon to be ex-wife created instead were all just overly detailed enough to punctuate and convey the sincere grief Robert was experiencing (“The 1% are hurting too!”). Being a fan of the great Stanley Kubrick I couldn’t help but greatly appreciate all the Eyes Wide Shut references juxtaposed against the sensible purposes Mrs. California actually utilized as well as the contrast between Caligula, Last Tango in Paris, and Emmanuel 2 with Marley & Me. I also loved Robert’s admission that he committed a “total waste of two bears.” This secondary plot culminated almost as sweetly as the aforementioned romances and even more hilariously with Robert’s realization that that which he was lamenting was actually occurring before his very eyes and was celebrated with some unwelcomed skinny dipping.

Contained within Robert’s subplot were two more subplots – Ryan and Gabe’s competition to see who could best suck up to their CEO which was perfectly consistent with each respective characters’ spinelessness and made for a wonderful who can top who dynamic culminating in joining Robert’s skinny dipping and followed by their refusal to stop dancing provocatively during what could only be the last throes of the evening – and Toby and Oscar’s “dangerous game” of diving face first into Robert’s comprehensive 1200 bottle collection of wine. Each of these mini-plots were so successful because both were consistent with the characters involved yet portrayed each in ways that were previously only minimally explored or barely hinted at. And again, they didn’t make the episode feel congested; rather they added dimensions to it.

On top of all the actual stories in this episode, “The Pool Party” also included wonderful glimpses at the other characters of television’s greatest ensemble (yeah, I said it) which perhaps benefited from their restraint such as the image of Creed lounging in what appeared to be a crown, Meredith’s admiration for a Band-Aid-less pool, Kelly’s burning sea pyre, Kevin calling Val “racist” for asking if Daryl doesn’t swim, Jim’s pride at making it home from a New Year’s Eve party by 9 pm, Erin’s quoting of Robert that she couldn’t handle their hooking up as he is “a ride [she] couldn’t survive,” and Dwight’s meta-commentary that he’s tired of seeing the same people all the time like at Phyllis’ birthday party.

I think I included all of the notes and observations I took from “The Pool Party” yet I’m sure there’s plenty I missed and I couldn’t be happier for it. I’ve mentioned in the past how another reviewer of The Office commented on an eighth season episode in which the staff took a trip to a Civil War memorial that the writers seem too eager to take the staff outside of the actual Scranton branch without sufficient reason for it. “The Pool Party” definitely earned its field trip this time around as we could not have seen the same episode in any other setting. This is without a doubt the best crafted episode of The Office not only of the eighth season but in a very long time and I’m going to cut myself off from gushing too much but I hope the writer-director team of “The Pool Party” is aware of how skillfully they executed this episode and apply its strengths to the rest of the series because I’d be happy to see The Office reach seasons in the double digits if they can keep the quality up as high and consistent as it was in this episode.

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This article was first posted on January 20, 2012